Seen and unseen: Koorie artists tell their stories through art

Spencer Fowler Steen

A new exhibition showcasing the work of trailblazing First Nations artists from southeast Australia is heading to Melbourne.

Seen and Unseen: Expressions of Koorie Identity is an exhibition run by Koorie Heritage Trust (KHT) bringing together artwork from several exhibitions from the 1990s, at a time when many indigenous artists struggled to have their work acknowledged.

KHT curatorial manager and exhibition curator Gail Harradine, who is also a teacher and artist, said the exhibition was about acknowledging that indigenous artists from southeast Australia had struggled with being seen.

“It’s difficult to imagine that it was close to 30 years ago that Koorie artists were struggling to have their art and culture acknowledged,” she said.

“The idea of being inauthentic is absurd and yet that idea was prevalent and widely held. Together these artists offer an insight into their struggles and triumphs and what it took for their voices to be heard. While gains have been made for Aboriginal people, there is still a very long way to go.”

As a Wotjobaluk, Djubagalk and Jadawadjali woman, Ms Harradine along with fellow artist and Gamilaroi woman, Dr Donna Leslie, were among the first Koorie students to go through fine art studies at The University of Melbourne in the ‘90s.

Ms Harradine said growing up, she still remembered seeing the bones of Aboriginal people on display at museums and recalls the stories of her relatives who grew up on missions where every aspect of their lives was controlled by white people, while creativity was shunned.

But while at university, she became part of a strong First Nations arts and culture community.

“To the broader community, we may have been invisible as to our culture, identity and art practice, but together we felt empowered to make change,” she said.

Seen and Unseen will bring together artwork from the Can’t See for Lookin’ exhibition, KHT’s collection, archival material, oral history recordings along with artwork from other significant artists of the time.

Ms Harradine said the exhibition would also give voice to younger identities that were equally strong, resilient, and significant.

“Often when I was talking with people, they mention working around the kitchen table, it’s a huge theme. I think that importance of sharing knowledge and being able to be creative is a huge part of the exhibition and not being oppressed by the assumptions people hold,” she said.

Artists include Maree Clarke, the late Ellen Jose, Aunty Rachel Mullett, the late Aunty Connie Alberts Hart, Lisa Kennedy, Donna Leslie, Dr Treahna Hamm, Karen Casey, Sonja Hodge and Gayle Maddigan. Other significant artists from that time include the late Lin Onus, Ray Thomas, Lyn Thorpe and the late Les Griggs.

Seen and Unseen: Expressions of Koorie Identity opens Saturday, August 7 until November 21, 2021. Koorie Heritage Trust, Yarra Building, Federation Square. •

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